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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2588

The People and their Leaders

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”Carl Schurz, (“The Policy of Imperialism)

The leaders would do well to listen to the people. The most holistic, nuanced, rational and sensible set of opinions on the North-East issue was expressed by a Sinhala and Muslim majority in an opinion poll carried out by the Marga Institute (on behalf of the National Peace Council). The poll was conducted in the provinces outside of the North-East and the Ampara district; it was therefore reflective of non-Tamil opinion.

According to the poll, 99% do not want the war to continue. But this does not indicate a desire to return to a policy of appeasement vis-à-vis the LTTE – because 77% of the respondents believe the government should act on the basis that the LTTE will not give up the goal of an independent state of Tamil Eelam, and will not enter the democratic process. The majority of the Sinhala and Muslim people therefore oppose the war while understanding its inevitability, given the maximalist nature of the Tigers. Though not for war, they are not for appeasement either; they know that with the LTTE no amount of appeasement will work.

Guided by this realistic understanding of the essential nature of the LTTE, 84% of the respondents believe that the government should concentrate on militarily defeating the LTTE and recapturing all Tiger-controlled territory. However a majority are also aware that even a definitive military victory over the Tigers will not bring about a lasting peace. Of the respondents, 89% believe that the LTTE will continue as a guerrilla force and threaten peace and security even after suffering a comprehensive military defeat. Clearly a majority of the Sinhala and Muslim people, while understanding the need to defeat the Tigers militarily, do not believe that military victory alone can bring about a lasting peace or normalcy.

According to the poll, 72% believe the best guarantee of a lasting peace is a political solution acceptable to all communities and to the LTTE - once it gives up the Eelam demand and accepts multi-party democracy. Perhaps a majority of Sinhala and Muslim people think that a post-Pirapaharan LTTE, like the post-Wijeweera JVP, will become less maximalist and more amenable to a compromise solution. This is not an unrealistic assessment. A post-Pirapaharan LTTE is likely to be an entity that a non-Sinhala supremacist Lankan administration can work with, to mutual advantage.

According to the poll, a majority of the people are not anti-devolution, as the extremist Southern parties – and the President – tend to believe and portray. Less than 10% of respondents rejected any form of devolution, including the existing provincial council system. Of the respondents, 95% think that the political solution should be just and fair to all communities and that it should guarantee equal rights to all citizens in all parts of the country regardless of ethnicity or religion. More interestingly 70% of respondents expressed willingness to accept devolution close to a federal system as a part of a three-tier system which brings government close to the people by giving adequate power to political institutions at the local (third) and the community level. Greater devolution of power at the national level and enhanced decentralisation of power within the devolved unit seem to be the choice of the majority.

Retrogression

A majority of the Sinhala and Muslim people seem to have grasped the complexities of the North-East issue. Theirs is a suitably sophisticated approach which differentiates between the Tigers and the people, military victory and political solution, the war and the ethnic problem. Though desiring peace, they understand the need to defeat the Tiger militarily and offer a political solution to the ethnic problem. Sadly none of the major Southern parties adheres to a similar policy package. President Rajapakse understands the need to defeat the Tigers militarily but prevaricates when it comes to the equally necessary task of offering a political solution to the ethnic problem. Mr. Wickremesinghe is willing to share power with the Tigers even though the Tigers are not willing to share power with anyone. The JVP and the JHU, with their visceral hatred of any kind of devolution, obviously represent the thinking of less than 10% of the Sinhala and Muslim people. No wonder both parties rely on extra-democratic methods in opposing any devolution package rather than advocating the holding of a free and fair referendum to discover the popular will.

Going by the poll results, it is feasible for both the SLFP and he UNP to adopt an anti-Tiger, non-Sinhala supremacist stand on the North-Eastern issue. Such a balanced approach will enable these parties to win the backing of the Tamils and the international community, without running the risk of losing Southern support. Neither would though – for reasons that have nothing to do with mass Sinhala and Muslim opinion. Ranil Wickremesinghe would want to toe the Tiger line because he still dreams of winning power and office with LTTE support. For the government, the real problem is not so much public opinion or even Sinhala public opinion but the shrilly outpourings of its allies – the JVP and the JHU. It is these parties which are insisting on the preservation of the unitary system. It is to satisfy these parties Candidate Rajapakse took the SLFP back to ‘unitarianism’ during the Presidential election. It is to satisfy these parties President Rajapakse came up with a retrogressive ‘political solution’ which advocated a shift from provincial devolution to district level decentralisation. It is to satisfy these parties the President is stealthily undermining his own All Parties Conference.

Retrogression has been a major feature of the Rajapakse administration. Currently what is at stake is not so much the nature of the state – whether it is unitary, quasi-unitary or federal but the unit of devolution. Moderate Tamil leaders, such as V Anandasangaree and Douglas Devananda are not asking for federalism. They would be satisfied with a hybrid system which combines the features of ‘unitarianism’ with federalism. Both have come up with viable formulas for devolution in the here and now, rather than in some distant future. Unfortunately the regime has failed to respond positively to the stand of these moderate Tamils.

President Rajapakse’s interview with Inderjit Badwar is relevant here, because it hints at what Mr. Rajapakse really feels about devolution: “In Sri Lanka – except for the North with its Tamil language and lifestyle – no other province has a separate organic identity as such. Over a period of years – the districts – which were units of administration where matters of land, birth, deaths, justice were covered – began to develop some kind of identity. People got used to exercising their rights and powers at this level. Later through the system of Provincial Councils, the power from the centre – originally delegated to the districts – went into the hands of the new provincial councils, which were much more distant from the grassroots communities in which our people live and work. In other words, power shifted away from the grassroots, away from the districts, away from the people into the hands of politicians. I would like to see the functioning of a true democracy where power reverts back to the districts, which means back to the people themselves” (Asian Tribune – 20.9.2007; emphasis mine). Is the President implying that the people had greater access to power before the Provincial Council system came into being? Does he believe that this is true of the North-Eastern Tamils as well? Does he think that by replacing provincial councils with district councils he can solve the ethnic problem? Does he believe that such downgrading would be acceptable to any Tamil leader, however moderate and anti-Tiger?

Credibility

Given Mr. Wickremesinghe’s dependency on the goodwill of the Sun God, the UNP can only be a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution, so long as the leadership of the party remains unchanged. The JHU and the JVP, in their contention for the anti-devolution 10%, will try to outdo each other in opposing any power sharing package. In a free and fair referendum on devolution, neither party may be able to muster much support; in the absence of such a referendum they can play an extremely destructive role, by resorting to extra-democratic methods. Already both parties have done much to derail the APRC process. Both parties have opposed the Anandasangaree proposal for a quasi federal/unitary model akin to the Indian model. And they are unlikely to back the three-step Devananda proposal either.

The President obviously has no intention of antagonising his allies on this issue. According to media reports, the purpose of the APRC exercise is to deflect international criticism and buy time for the President, at least until his UN visit is over. A bit like the Presidential Commission on human rights violations and the IIGEP; these are time buying exercises, mere window dressings which are not expected to produce any results. After all, if the President has any interest in the rule of law and basic rights, he will reign in Mervyn Silva. Unfortunately instead of reprimanding this minister and his offspring for their bovine conduct, the President, according to media reports, personally intervenes to help them escape just punishment by the judiciary. That incident reveals much about the willingness of the Rajapakse administration to permit its members and supporters to act with unlimited impunity. If the President is so tolerant of the criminal conduct by his own in the South, if he is so protective of his men who violate the law of the land in the South, one can imagine his real attitude towards human rights violations by our forces in the North-East.

In his interview with Mr. Badwar the President attempts to justify the decision by his government to expel North-Eastern Tamils from Colombo lodges. “Up till now, all the terrorist attacks in Colombo had been planned and implemented by persons taking refuge in lodges. And yes, we conducted a search of a few specific lodges where we had information that LTTE terrorist cadres, coming to the capital ostensibly to expedite passport clearances, may be taking shelter. There were no illegal detentions and the security forces were under strict orders to exercise restraint and show courtesy”. It is on record that at a meeting with the top security brass, the Defence Secretary decided to expel all North-Eastern Tamils from Colombo lodges; the minutes of that meeting have been published in the media. It is also on record that on the first day of this ‘Operation’, the police behaved with inconsideration bordering on brutality; forcibly expel children old people and sick people. It is also no secret that this ‘Operation’ ceased not because the government changed its mind or because it was supposed to be a ‘limited operation’ but because the Supreme Court ordered the government to stop it. In such a context, the above statement by the President denotes either extraordinary naivety or extraordinary duplicity. The people may be moderate and intelligent; but when the leaders of all hues are neither, the fate of the country cannot be a happy one.

- Asian Tribune -

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